For Peter Bromka, the chase is still on
“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you will land among the stars.”
I’ve always hated that saying.
Aside from being unsafe aerospace advice, it glosses over the details and work required to reach an audacious goal. When endeavoring far beyond your limits the potential for glory is more than offset by the chance of failure. Calculations of this magnitude aren’t to be approximated.
The daunting hunt for an Olympic Marathon Trials Qualifier (an OTQ) came about somewhat unexpectedly. Last December the Bowerman Track Club Elite (not Pro) was surprised to find itself with four athletes knocking on the door of the 2:19 standard. Not super close, but well within the margin of ambition. When you’ve run 2:22 or 2:23 you don’t shoot for 2:21 when sub-2:19 earns you an expenses paid trip to the Olympic Trials.
Chris Yates at 2:21, Patrick Reaves and myself at 2:23 and Chris Platano at 2:24.
We committed to work together towards breaking 2:19 on December 2nd at the California International Marathon.
But I needed something more.
A supportive team of amateur runners will push you during workouts, but improving by over 10 seconds per mile for 26.2 required that I risk something. Like holding a down payment in escrow for a house, I needed to put something on the line to endeavor this much. Which is why I employed all of you.
Posting “Burn the Boat” online forced my hand. Eight months out I was now committed. Having stated my intent to break 2:19 to the world, there would be no “try.” Only success or failure.
Now it was time to get to work.
More mileage. More lifting. Being self coached means borrowing from the best. Mileage plans were scoped. Weight training routines were revised. 26.2 miles at 5:18 pace demanded more of everything.
The first unlock was an inconspicuous 100 mile week in April. Having always thought that it would break me, I found out that, shockingly, it didn’t! There are no “low mileage runners” at this level. There are high mileage and higher mileage runners. But no one wants to read another story of a broken athlete.
"Eight months out I was now committed. Having stated my intent to break 2:19 to the world, there would be no 'try.' Only success or failure.
Now it was time to get to work."
A 3rd place finish at the Eugene Marathon Half Marathon in 68:23 was a high, but still far from enough.
The BTC Elite left Eugene with mixed emotions. I was the only one close to 68 minutes. The time tables say that the average runner must be able to hit mid-66 for a Half to have a shot at a 2:19 Full. Yates, Reaves and Platano were congratulatory, if chagrined.
“Well done! So are you gonna be ready in December?” my next door neighbor asked kindly.
“Honestly, I have no idea. We’ll see. There’s a lot of work to do.”
My body had adjusted to handle 80–85 miles a week.
Still not enough.
The easy days of summer linger for the Fall marathoner. Shirtless sun-kissed miles play kindly to the ego, but humidity and temperature weigh on the ability to train over 20 miles.
Heaven help the early fall marathoner. Long runs and heavy mileage in the heat of August. Much respect to them, this isn’t us. The BTC met together on occasion, but largely kept it unorganized. An unspoken acknowledgement of the effort awaiting us come September.
The agreement was understood, come Labor Day you best be ready to roll.
“We’ve got 5–7 guys going for it.” I tell a friend in disbelief. Jared Carson had recently entered the fold. His smooth stride only out done by his kind Southern drawl. The man may seem relaxed, but he’ll wax you around the track.
Patrick Reaves, the Player/Coach of the group, sketched out a 16 week plan. It’s not mandatory, but there’s an open invite and a steady pace train. Intervals Wednesdays. Hard long runs each weekend. We’re working professionals juggling busy lives. We each find a way to make it work.
An early October half marathon once again produced mixed results. Carson crushed in 66:39. Platano finished in decent form at 67:53. But Reaves came through over 69 and I couldn’t even crack 70:00. Concerned, we went back to work. Only 8 weeks till take-off.
As the physical fatigue accumulated, the mental stress began to weigh heavily. Months passed and runner after talented runner failed to qualify. Former D1 All-Americans faltered in Berlin. A whole pack of badasses crashed and burned in Chicago. And barely anyone even tried through NYC.
If these runners, who’ve run faster than me at every distance, can’t even crack 2:20, am I wasting my time?
Having run ten marathons, I’d never raced a single mile at OTQ pace. But I knew something about progression.
In 2013 I ran 2:47
In 2014 I ran 2:36
In 2015 I ran 2:34
In 2016 I ran 2:29
In 2017 I ran 2:23
Breaking 2:19 demanded more trust in the same process than ever before.
"Months passed and runner after talented runner failed to qualify...
If these runners, who’ve run faster than me at every distance, can’t even crack 2:20, am I wasting my time?"
Our training leads to three key long runs: The “10/10,” The “20 uptempo” and “16 at pace.”
The 10 easy, then 10 at marathon pace is done 10 weeks out to feel the rhythm while fatigued.
There were bumps. Yates, our leader in 2017, was managing a cascading series of injuries. He ran strongly at times, but missed key workouts. There was collective concern, but only so much discussion, since pity won’t make you any faster.
The 20 miles “uptempo” (10–15 seconds over marathon pace) on a crisp morning shocked us all slightly. Talking, trading the lead, we averaged 5:29 per mile. A huge improvement over last year.
Progress. Hope. Still more work to do.
“Marathon training is kind of a trust fall,” Patrick philosophized. You need to take risks, to balance fatigue with performance, without knowing the true outcome until race day.
Due to a scheduling conflict two Long Runs landed on subsequent weekend days, Sunday and the following Saturday. During the cool down it occured to me what I’d just done: run 113 miles in a 7-day span. “Careful.” I cautioned.
Marathon training is stacking layers of long runs. 24 milers through the park, 25 milers around the city. Forming, bit by bit, the fortitude to race past mile 20. Because anyone can run to 20 miles.
That’s when the Marathon begins.
Finally — 16 miles at Goal Pace. We settled on 10.6 laps of our home loop, The Hollister Trail. A 1.5 mile undulating path named after employee #3 of the Swoosh. Beginning with nervous chatter, we soon settled into pace. Passing through 13.1 in 69 minutes we murmured words of encouragement. It’s on. Accelerating slowly, Patrick finished under 5 minute pace.
16 miles averaging 5:15 minutes per mile.
Almost time for countdown.
“Anything between 69:15 to 69:45 and we’re good,” Patrick mapped out the night before.
“Do you honestly think, with the downhills, that we’re going to go slower than pace? Knowing us?” I rebutted. 69:30 is half of 2:19.
“We can. We have to have the confidence to negative split.” He declared.
The Plan was set. Five of us would put ourselves in position to Qualify.
One final to-do: checking in with all of you. Having tossed my goal out into the world, I was returned a tidal wave of supportive messages from family, notes from strangers, and texts from far off friends. They seemed to get it: this race means little in life, but once you choose to care, it’s everything. They appreciated my openness. As I told a friend, “If I fail out there I’ll be the first to know. Nothing anyone else can say will make it worse.”
It was now time to execute the same routine we’d practiced repeatedly: Warm-up together, shuffle to the start. National anthem. One final huddle. “Let’s do this boys!”
Miles 1–4 (5:16, 5:17, 5:07, 5:14)
Perfect. Out together in a stream of athletes. The most densely competitive marathon in America, it feels more like a cross country pack than a road race. The ground rumbles beneath your feet. Patrick on my left, Jared to my right. We’re slightly off the back of a large pack, unsure of the best way to play. We know we can do this on our own, but the physics of drafting are proven. It’s good if you can get it.
The first bottle stop turns to chaos. The elites each have a bottle neatly arranged for them, but fluids for the remainder of the championship pack are provided on a single table — 40 bottles set out tightly. Runners grasp for them at pace and bottles begin to fly and fall to the ground. Many are missed. But something unexpected occurs: sharing.
“I’ve got Maurten! Maurten anyone?!” someone to our right offers.
Qualifying means so much that even in the midst of a championship race, over the next two hours, we’re aiming for collective success.
“I knew we’d have friends, I didn’t know we’d have hundreds!” Patrick jokes.
I’m nervous. “Relax, you knew this wouldn’t be comfortable.” I remind myself.
My plan is to break the race into 4 mile chapters. Each of which I’ll complete by eating a gel. It’s an attempt to bring some process to an otherwise hectic waves of emotion and effort.
We’re out fast. I knew it. We’re fine 'cause we’re together.
Miles 5–8 (5:14, 5:12, 5:18, 5:15)
We are flying. This is fun. But the course’s undulations are hitting me. Last year I’d arrogantly remarked how much I adored these rolling hills. Careful what you profess. We’re ascending these inclines 10–15 seconds per mile faster than last year and I can feel it.
“Don’t make decisions on an uphill!” I chastise myself, repeating an old cross country running truism. When your mind is foggy from fatigue it’s no time to make choices. Each time we climb I’m eager to throw off my hat or rip off my arm sleeves. Anything to find some comfort. The temperature is perfect. There will be no comfort today. Seeking serenity is futile. Settle in. Pick a sign, run to that sign. Find an intersection, run to that intersection. Make this as dull as possible.
I pass by friends and family, attempting to remain calm. Controlling my heart rate as much as possible. We have so much work left to do.
Miles 9–13 (5:18, 5:11, 5:09, 5:12, 5:17)
You can’t bank time in a marathon, but it’s tempting to believe. Every split feels like stowing away precious seconds for the final push. We’re laboring. Or I am, but this is the pace. We have much too much momentum to back off now.
This is our pack. There are others close ahead and behind, but this is the die we’ve cast.
Half Marathon — 13.1–68:47 A smirk creases across my face.
“Congrats” I slip subtly to Patrick between breaths.
“You asshole. I knew you were going to say something,” he replies, having just broken his Half Marathon best. I couldn’t help myself. It’s on, we’re in it and there’s no use pretending otherwise.
There’s no such thing as halfway launched.
Mile 14 (5:11)
I’m furious. I just ran a 5:11 and got dropped by the pack.
My body is screaming for caution. The pace is too hot. Any faster and I’m toast.
“That’s a perfectly respectable split!” I lament to no one.
Shit just got real.
The pace is at a level I’ve never touched before and now I’ll need to navigate alone. Reaves, Carson and Yates are off the front. They are charging and look smooth as always. We’ve turned South into the slanting winter sunlight and I’m squinting anxiously, attempting to find a new path forward.
“Gut check. You’re a big boy. You can do this on your own,” I reassure myself. Sideways glances reveal a great deal of suffering. All the pretenders are gone. The guys who naively stated, “I’ll go out on pace and see what happens!” Have been ripped off the back. Some are even beginning to drop out.
“Too bad bud, you’ve locked yourself inside this rocket, dropping out ain’t an option!” I chuckle sadistically.
Having told the world I’m gonna shoot my shot at 2:19, there will be no DNF. That was by design. I knew this moment would arrive. I just didn’t realize it would come so soon. Over an hour from the finish and I’m wide eyed, staring down more work than I’ve ever seen.
Mile 15 (5:17)
I’m alright. Still slicing off seconds for the keeping. I’ve found Platano and we’re determined to remain positive. “We’re good!” I tell him, to reassure myself.
Mile 16 (5:15)
I feel alright, this is doable. But wait, are we going fast enough?
Glancing down at my watch it’s clear that we’re slipping. “We gotta move!” I implore Platano.
Ten miles to travel and it appears each one will be its own adventure. Deep breaths.
Mile 17–18 (5:18, 5:20)
Shit, there it is. The first mile over goal pace. If the bleeding starts here it’s gonna be a long day.
I pass Julia and Jason, but barely glance in exchange. I have absolutely nothing to spare.
Mile 19–20 (5:26, 5:20)
The road ahead rolls slightly upward and is lined with men to catch, but they’re all dwindling. None of them will get me where I need to go today. They're all fighting a slow decline. I pull alongside Jason Ayr. Having battled together through Death Valley during The Speed Project on team Tracksmith we both hoped to be better prepared for this moment of reckoning.
“Let’s go,” I barely muster in encouragement as I pass. I wish I could do more for the man who did so much for me on the road to Vegas.
Mile 21 (5:14)
It’s time to go for broke.
To even have a chance to have a chance in the final miles I’ve gotta stop the bleeding right now. I know I’m pushing too hard and I know it can’t matter.
“So this is why the standard is 2:19,” I think. It’s hard because it’s supposed to be hard.
Yates’ distinctive Bowerman singlet has drifted back to me, but I can hardly summon a gesture. Slight acknowledgement and I’m off ahead. He’s fought valiantly to make it this far. Having battled injuries for over 6 months his mileage debt is finally being collected. He’ll be back again another day.
Noticing the pace on my watch is slowing I rotate my wrist and swear off splits for the remainder of the race. The time for data has passed. I can’t handle even an ounce of negativity.
It’s time to race.
The issue isn’t that I’m running slowly, at 5:28 a mile I’m racing faster than I ever have before, it’s just that this fast isn’t fast enough. My legs feel fine, I’m just slowing slightly.
“This is why you run 100 mile weeks.” I sigh. Having cobbled together two or three of my own, I envy Patrick’s lifetime collection of hundreds. I’d guess the man has run close to 100 hundreds and it shows by how far he’s disappeared ahead into the distance.
"Noticing the pace on my watch is slowing, I rotate my wrist and swear off splits for the remainder of the race. The time for data has passed. I can’t handle even an ounce of negativity."
Mile 23–5k to go
I know I’m close to the cut off and that there’s only so much I can do about it. The pain isn’t overwhelming, but I’m giving back too much, too quickly.
Even as I continue to pass fading runners reality strikes: The OTQ is likely over.
Struggling against the temptation to concede I reach even deeper for meaning: I am here because of my father. The truth I find in running is a gift he gave me as a child. One that has directed my life with purpose. It’s how we relate to one another and the world. I want this for us.
And for my wife Julia. For everything she’s given me, all that she’s sacrificed for my dream. She didn’t need this. I wanted this. I’ve asked so much of her to get to this very moment of torment.
They will love me regardless of how this instant ends, but I must execute for them right now.
“Run fast because you can,” a close friend had urged me. A teammate of mine from college, both of us approaching 40, she appreciates the gift of my opportunity today. It brought tears to my eyes in the moment and I swore I’d stow it away for when I needed it most.
“I Can.” I repeat. “I Can!”
“Two miles of hard running Bromka! Take it one at a time. The guys are good up front. Get to work!” Elliot Heath directs from the curb. A recently retired Bowerman Track Club Professional, the man knows what has to be done and when. My mind snaps to the “Bowerman” name running down the back of my singlet. It may sound like just a brand to some, but as an Oregon kid I take the honor of racing in his name seriously.
If I were a pro these miles would be my boardroom. What you do here defines your career. I know sub-2:20 is still possible, even as the sheer difficulty of my stride implores me to settle. But I am more terrified of looking back at these minutes with regret than I am fearful to hurt.
“Four minutes left of hard running! It’s all you baby! Keep running. KEEP FIGHTING!” my friend Paul insists without a grain of sympathy. He’s giving me everything I’d ask for from him and I hate him for it intensely.
“FIGHT FOR IT BROMKA!
FIGHT!” — His shouts echo against the buildings and rattle through my mind.
I realize that completing this, the slowest mile of the day, will demand more effort than each one so far.
Counting to twenty repeatedly to pass the moments shifts to counts to ten since I can no longer seem to remember the teens. “There’s no rule that says you have to keep watching,” I justify momentarily while running with my eyes closed. Nearly losing my balance, my eyes pop open to see the blinking sign signaling the final quarter mile.
The race organizers had informed us that the championship finish line would be closed at 2 hours 20 minutes. All additional men would be directed to an alternate route. For some reason this gnawed at me. “If I get redirected it will feel like insult to injury,” I’d bemoaned.
I turn the corner…and…the barrier to the championship finish is still open!
It can’t be, can it?
“Is sub 2:19 still possible?!?” I wonder.
Driving my arms furiously I round the turn to the precious few remaining meters. Tilting my eyes upward I am confronted with the truth. The clock has rolled past 2:19.
Of course. The OTQ is gone.
But, I’m about to become a 2:19 marathoner.
Hurling myself across the finish at 2:19:40, I’m exhausted and overcome. I see Julia and her tears bring on my tears, or the other way around.
Regardless, we hold each and sob.
“WHERE IS PATRICK?!” I yell. Barely able to stand, I’m also unable to contain the excitement for my friend. Our eyes lock, his dart to ask, “Did you get it?” No, I gesture. We embrace and I marvel, “What did you even run?!”
“2:17” he smiles with amusement, fully aware of how absurd it is.
“FUCK YEAH!” I scream for the world. I wanted this for him so badly, almost more than I wanted it for myself. We’d known he could do it, but he had to execute today, inside this specific space of two hours and nineteen minutes.
The Atlanta boy is headed home for the Trials in 2020.
Stumbling around deliriously I pause and close my eyes. Sobbing.
I’m overcome by conflicting emotions of gratitude and disappointment.
I’m a 2:19 marathoner.
That both doesn’t even make sense and also isn’t enough. I want to scream, cry and vomit all at once.
I don’t know how to feel. I had wanted to believe that sub-2:19 was possible. I had longed for that conviction. But like a radio station crackling on a country road, I’d only caught it in fits and starts.
“You need to believe it’s 100% possible,” a 2:19 marathoner had cautioned me. But had I? Hardly. Reaching this far had forced me well beyond the safety of certainty.
Only one thing is clear: I’m empty. After a year of striving, I am spent.
But also, I’m proud. Proud of my team. Proud of my time. Even proud of my failure. I earned the right to be disappointed by this near miss.
Having called my shot a year ago, and run thousands of miles to get here, I just traveled 26.2 miles at 5:19 pace.
And fell just 40 seconds short.
“I’m so proud of you babe.” Julia reassures me an hour later as I lie on the sidewalk, warming up in the California sun.
“Thank you.” I smile with satisfaction.
“Today was so good! You all did so well. How do you think you can possibly improve?” She says astonished.
Pausing, for a moment, I look up and smile at the absurd simplicity of what lies ahead,
“More miles,” I chuckle.